In 1998, Square released Final Fantasy Tactics in North America – a strategy RPG spinoff of their flagship franchise. The game was met with a tepid response at first, but fans eventually warmed up to it. Retrospectives have since gone on to declare it one of the strongest titles in the original PlayStation’s library. A few years later, Square would reach a publishing agreement with their old affiliates at Nintendo. They would use this opportunity to create a sequel to their sleeper hit, intending to develop it for Nintendo’s newest handheld console at the time: the Game Boy Advance. The game that would result from this project was completed in 2003 under the name, “Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.”
Playing the Game
As suggested by its name, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is a tactical role-playing game. Combat employs an action-by-action system. The order in which a character can act is determined by their speed. Intuitively, combatants with the highest speed move first. Having a high speed can be a big advantage because faster characters can potentially move twice before the slowest ones depending on how large the disparity is.
Once a character has completed their turn, you choose which direction they face. This is important because attacking an enemy from the side or back increases your party members’ accuracy while a frontal assault is far less effective. Naturally, it’s best to have your character face a direction that would make it difficult for your opposition to get the drop on them. As battles take place with a consistent sense of scale – a small one at that – there aren’t really terrain bonuses per se. Instead, elevation plays minor a role in conflicts. As one would expect, the higher ground is advantageous as ranged weapon users such as archers have a difficult time hitting opponents from below.
The series’ signature job system first introduced in Final Fantasy III makes a return for this game. Final Fantasy Tactics Advance features five distinct races: Humans, Bangaa, Nu Mou, Moogles, and Viera. Each race has a different set of jobs, commonly referred to as classes in other RPGs, available to them. However, unlike in the primary Final Fantasy games, jobs aren’t exactly acquired as the game progresses. Instead, every job is technically available from the onset, but is limited on a per-character basis. Specifically, certain jobs require a character to master a certain number of abilities in other classes in order to switch into them.
In a contrast to most RPGs, the utility of equipment isn’t solely measured in how much they increase a character’s offensive or defensive capabilities. Abilities are learned in a similar fashion as magic was in Final Fantasy VI with the esper system in that certain weapons and armor grant abilities when equipped. Once a character has used the piece for a long enough time, they will master the ability, allowing them to use it without having to equip the appropriate item. Each ability requires a certain amount of points (AP) which are accumulated by having that character participate in battles or dispatch missions.
As soon as I was introduced to it, the job system has always been one of my favorite game mechanics in any JRPG. It allows players to come up with several inventive combinations for their characters and adds a lot of replay value. Among many other possibilities, you can have a mage master multiple schools of magic. I thought it was intriguing how each race has a different set of jobs; it’s an organic way of getting players to use a variety of characters.
The battles themselves are interesting as well. I think that much like its predecessor, the creators were able to successfully translate the overall feel of a Final Fantasy game into a strategy title. I enjoyed getting to see familiar classes and signature spells manifest in an entirely different style of game. I also like that there isn’t too much of a consequence for failure. In most conflicts, combatants who have run out of health are merely knocked out rather than permanently killed off. While I don’t mind when the latter happens, the former is nice every once in a while because it doesn’t punish the player too much for wanting to experiment a little.
There is one poorly-implemented mechanic that dampers the experience, however: the law system. A majority of engagements are overseen by a judge who imposes certain laws depending on the day. As long as they’re present, certain actions are forbidden while others are recommended. They can be anywhere from not allowing any fire-based attacks to downright intrusive such as disallowing the “Fight” command. Taking a recommended action or legally knocking an opponent out awards the unit with a judge point. These points are used for certain combination attacks and, later on in the game, to summon spirits to aid in battle.
On the other hand, performing an illegal act will have the judge penalize the offending party with a yellow card. Receiving one can have various effects such as permanently lowering a unit’s stats or taking away certain rewards upon winning. Should the same unit commit another infraction or if a forbidden action results in a knockout, they will receive a red card and be sent to jail where you’ll need to pay a fine to bail them out.
I speak no hyperbole when I say that this is one of the most annoying mechanics to ever present itself in a Final Fantasy game – spinoff or otherwise. There’s nothing stopping you from selecting a forbidden action. This wouldn’t be so bad except for the tiny detail that you have to cycle through a few menus in order to access the screen which displays the laws rather than have them exist on the top of the screen at all times. My least favorite thing about this mechanic is how it only ever seems to put you, the player, at a disadvantage. In theory, enemies have to obey the laws just like you. In practice, there are laws, such as not being allowed to damage monsters, that can only ever benefit enemies. That’s not even mentioning how most bosses can never get slapped with a red card, though that’s a little more understandable. An ultimate showdown with a godlike creature would be anticlimactic if it ended with it getting carted off to jail.
Most of the time when I’m confronted with an unpolished mechanic, I can at least see what could have been done to improve it. This case is interesting in that the only improvement I can come up with is to not include the law system at all. To be fair, it does have its role in the plot and there are ways to get around it later, but it’s almost never a good idea to have story elements intrude on the gameplay. The best creators find ways to integrate story and game mechanics so that they enhance each other without making either aspect suffer in quality.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers. If you are at all interested in playing Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I suggest you skip to the conclusion.
Marche is the newest student in St. Ivalice. During recess, things quickly go awry when a group of hooligans use the opportunity to bully their favorite target, Mewt, by pelting him with a salvo of snowballs. Once school has ended, Marche decides to invite Mewt and Ritz to his house after the former claims to have found an interesting book. Joined by his younger brother, Doned, who was rendered an invalid due to a serious illness, the three of them page through the book only to discover that, as interesting as it is, they can’t decipher a single word. After pondering what would be like if the book’s world was real, the kids then ask each other which video game setting they would make into a reality. Mewt goes with an obvious choice.
Marche is shocked when he wakes up the next morning to discover that St. Ivalice has vanished and a fantasy realm has appeared in its stead. After fighting off a belligerent man and his cohort, he learns that he has awakened in the land of Ivalice: the world Mewt wished to make real. In this new world, many people form clans, effectively a group of sellswords who will take on any job, be it dangerous or mundane, for a price. Marche is invited by one of the world’s denizens, a moogle named Montblanc, to join his clan. From there, he begins his journey to solve the mystery behind the world’s transformation.
All kidding aside, I actually found myself liking the premise of this game, as it sort of manages to be the video game equivalent of The Neverending Story. It’s a commonly-used premise to have characters being thrust into a completely different universe, but it’s one that works well in the hands of competent writers. The best part of the plot was watching Marche develop from an unsure fish-out-of-water to a competent leader of a mercenary band.
Despite this, the story of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance remains somewhat controversial among fans. There is a persistent theory among those who have played this game that Marche, the protagonist, is the true villain of this scenario. Ordinarily, the fans’ willingness to paint an unambiguously heroic character as evil (or the opposite: whitewashing a completely irredeemable one) is an indication of how deranged the community can get. However, loathe as I am to admit it, these people raise valid points once in a blue moon, and this is indeed one of those cases.
Before we go any further, we need the proper context. About halfway through the game, it’s revealed that Ivalice is a product of Mewt’s imagination. In this realm, he is the prince of the kingdom with his mother, having seemingly been resurrected from the dead, serving as its queen. Marche learns of five crystals that are integral to Ivalice’s continued existence. He is determined to destroy every one of them so he and his friends can return to the real world.
The problem arises when one considers that the main characters all lead unequivocally better lives in this fantasy realm. Doned is no longer bound to a wheelchair, Mewt is surrounded by his subjects who adore him, and Ritz’s hair is naturally red – its real color being a popular subject for bullies to tease her over. Nonetheless, the narrative paints the game’s driving conflict as far more black-and-white than it is in practice, and there lies the root of the problem. There are many points in the game where it’s a little more than heavily implied that Mewt’s fantasy realm is every bit as real as St. Ivalice. Consequently, many fans see Marche as a genocidal maniac who has no qualms wiping out an entire reality and the people who reside in it. This also raises the question: why would Marche’s fellow mercenaries willingly go along with a plot that would see their world’s destruction should they succeed? Like many other legitimate inquiries, it shall remain unanswered.
What doesn’t help dispel this notion is how Marche, and by extension, the writers, can’t seem to come up with many convincing counterarguments when called out by the world’s inhabitants. The best he can do is try to convince Mewt that he, along with everyone else, should return to the real world in order to confront their problems – no matter how painful it might be for him personally. It all leads to one of the strangest messages I’ve seen in a game because I can’t figure out exactly what the writers are getting at. Ostensibly, the running theme is: escapism isn’t healthy, yet I would say inserting that little pearl of wisdom in a video game which takes nearly twenty hours to complete is, to put it lightly, extremely counterproductive.
It feels like a game that could have had two different branching paths: stay in this new world and start a new life from scratch or restore the old one having gained confidence through various trials and tribulations in the other dimension. Considering how after the final mission, Marche and his friends return home, yet somehow only Mewt left and various subplots can occur from there, the impression I got is that the writers couldn’t commit to anything, so they tried both ideas in the same narrative with disastrous results.
Drawing a Conclusion
As good as the premise of this game is, the follow through has the potential to leave a sour taste in your mouth depending on how much you buy into the theory perpetuated by the series’ fans. I have to give it credit for attempting to demonstrate the traumatic effects the death of a loved one, bullying, and divorce have on children, but I found the cast a bit too bland and one-dimensional for this goodwill to leave any positive impact on the experience. Considering that for most of the game, the members of the main cast, with the obvious exception of Marche, are side characters who don’t join your clan, their arcs tend to be resolved very quickly with whatever sparse amounts of dialogue they have, making it difficult to care.
Fire Emblem: Blazing Sword and Final Fantasy Tactics Advance were the games that served as my introduction to the tactical role-playing-game subgenre. Ultimately, I would have to say that my feelings towards this game have become much more mixed over the years, and I accordingly find the task of recommending it a tricky one. While Final Fantasy Tactics Advance is far from being a bad game, it’s something of a paradox because it’s in a genre that thrives on good, or at least decent, storytelling. Therefore, when it’s of a dubious quality, it almost doesn’t matter how good the actual gameplay is or how much replay value it would have because there won’t be any satisfying goal to work towards; a little payoff can go a long way, after all.
Final Score: 5/10